|Ernes Hemingway and Martha Gelhorn|
Sun Valley, Idaho, 1940
Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood – review
Naomi Wood's novel about Ernest Hemingway and his four women brings their story convincingly, movingly to life
Sunday 23 February 2014 10.30 GMT
as there ever been a writer as good at personal myth-making as Ernest Hemingway? Papa. He who who led the lost generation of injured and traumatised after the first world war. Who symbolised the bohemian dream life in 1920s Paris. Who changed English literature with his unadorned, brutal and yet still tender prose. Who liberated the Paris Ritz after the second world war. Who drank the most, who caught the biggest fish, who bedded the most beautiful women, and who grew the most impressive beard. Who was also, as Naomi Wood is fond of telling us, devastatingly handsome; a "beauty" with "broad shoulders", and an all-conquering "grin".
"What pull he has! What magnetism! Women jump off balconies and follow him into wars. Women turn their eyes from an affair, because a marriage of three is better than a woman alone."
So thinks his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, anyway. She, Hadley Richardson, Martha Gelhorn, and Mary Welsh, the four women in this tetralogy of marital strife and disintegration, all have different ways of coping with their errant husband – and they are all variously engaging. There's a melodramatic edge, even something of the soap opera in the way Wood has them all confronting their problems, throwing their drinks at one another and vocalising their torment. But who wouldn't want to watch a glossy drama starring Papa and set on location in Florida, Cuba and Paris?
There are also more cerebral rewards, especially in contemplation of the fifth woman in this arrangement: the author herself. Naomi Wood has to wrestle Hemingway on to the page, and make him seem a believable domestic husband as well as that 20th century-striding colossus. Sometimes he slips away, and the story falters. More often it feels like we're seeing the real man behind the Papa legend. Or at least, a convincing fiction of him. The measure of Wood's success comes in the emotional impact of the final pages. She has made Hemingway's famous tragedy seem moving all over again – and that's no mean feat.